Olfactory systems are not faulting. Self-diagnostic systems are verified faultless. Aberration data must be reported under special codes.
Reporting system brought online and report generated. Video, audio, and chemical analysis data appended. Suggestion to attempt retrieval of biological evidence from the known path of the human that generated the aberration data is accepted and prioritized to top priority. Two units immediately investigate. One unit finds a small amount of biological material discarded from the skin, which is further analyzed by ingestion and found to contain traces of hyper oxygenated synthetic adrenaline.
Aberration data is documented as a singular case. Olfactory and visual evidence is sufficient to identify the individual in the future. All units are provided with olfactory and visual data requisite for identification of said individual. Standing capture instructions are provided, designating individual as a target for abduction for study, to be taken alive if possible. Based on condition of clothing, health, and possessions evident, target unit is expected to reside in one of five different areas known to be inhabited by mostly-transient humans living in atypically poor shelter. Each area will be investigated after full dark by three unit teams with two units to acquire target unit and one unit to monitor activities from a distance.
“Frank, was it just me, or did that drone seem to be a lookout?”
“That’s what it looked like to me too.”
“Fuck. OK, time to find a public restroom and make a phone call. There might be some sort of, umm, community? of drones? That just sounds so ridiculous that I’m having a hard time thinking about it.”
“Whether or not it seems ridiculous, what we just saw makes it seem very possible.”
We stepped into the men’s room of a gas station, locked the door, removed a cellphone and battery from the pouch, put them together, and made a call. Thirteen minutes later a panel van stopped outside the restroom, and I was given the all clear to move from the restroom to the panel van.
“Welcome back Magilla. We weren’t expecting an extraction call this soon, did you already find something?” Dart turned around a bit to face me from the passenger seat, wrinkling her nose, politely ignoring my stench. Animal just glanced at me in the rear view mirror and nodded, then started bobbing his head again.
“Yes, I need to talk to base, we found another drone variant. Dropping the homeless act. Frank, please get rid of all the fake injuries, and the real ones too.”
A couple seconds of warmth over most of my body. “Done.”
“Good.” She stopped ignoring my stench. “You need a shower. Badly. A dumpster trip for those clothes too. What did you find?”
“I only saw it about thirty minutes ago. I’m still thinking through all the ramifications of what I’ve seen, and I want to tell everyone at once so we can hash it out together.”
She shrugged. My eyes followed predictable male patterns when faced with such scenery. I realized that after a couple weeks as a homeless guy, I was missing more than a shower and clean clothes. Dart didn’t miss where my eyes travelled. She shrugged again a little more expressively, then gave me a little smile and turned back around. At least my little expedition hadn’t cost me my relationship with Dart – though I’d be on thin ice for a while I’m sure. She had not been happy when I started this.
We got back to the hotel and I cleaned up rapidly, trashing the disguise clothes, taking a shower, and getting dressed in some jeans and a simple white T-shirt. Dart and Animal were setting up the remote conference meeting. I was trying to think through all the different ramifications of finding a drone doing guard duty.
Finally the meeting was ready to start. Guiliard, Alice, and Advudt were all present, as were a couple of the forensics experts and one of our few real doctors.
“OK, I just scrubbed the undercover mission. Ran into a third type of drone, or rather a drone doing something I’ve never seen before. Standing guard.”
“What, did you say standing guard?” from Advudt.
“That’s been pretty much what I’ve been thinking since I saw it. Frank please upload the image of the guard drone, annotated with when we noticed it, and your detection data.”
The short clip played through. Everyone was stunned.
“So, for six decades we had consistent symbiote development patterns, modified in the last twenty years, but still mostly the same. And now in the last few months we’ve seen multiple drones with inconsistent behavior. Ambush killer drones and now guard drones.”
“Guards mean they are guarding something.” Guiliard muttering to himself thoughtfully.
“Yeah, which means I’m going to need my armor. It’s in the van?”
Dart and Animal both nodded
“Are you planning on charging into something headfirst again Bob?” Guiliard accused.
“Yes. Charging in butt first just looks funny.” Everyone rolled their eyes, except Dart, who squinted at me.
We talked back and forth a bit about various contingencies. Guiliard and Advudt were both confident that the drone noticed me, based on what it did and when. I wasn’t so sure, but they were both ex-military with a lot more time in service than the time I spent, followed up by a bunch of years in the field with the Agency. Frank wasn’t sure either, but he trusted their take on the actions of the drone, because their points indicated there needed to be more caution on my part, or at least more protection.
We agreed that I would hide and watch the bridge that I had been living under, overnight. If I had been noticed, there would probably be some sort of visit, either to positively ID me, capture me, or kill me. There were only a few places where large numbers of homeless hung out, and that bridge was one of them, the closest one to where the guard was. If I was detected, they were almost certainly going to investigate.
The next night’s activities would depend on how this night went.
After we were done with the conference call, Dart turned to Animal. “You’re hungry. Go get something to eat for about, oh, an hour.”
Animal just nodded with a smile. “Starving. Must go find food. Should I bring anything back?”
“Bring back four of whatever you get. I haven’t eaten anything good and hot for too long.” I said.
“Bring me something random back, something other than what you get for Magilla here. If his looks good I’ll eat some of it and give him some of mine.”
Animal nodded, checked his wallet and holdout weapons, and then headed out the door. Dart locked it behind him, turned to me and said “Out of those clothes. Now.”
I smiled as I started to slowly take off my T-shirt. “We don’t need to talk about anything?”
“I’m not wasting any time talking, Bob, we can do that some other time. You come in after weeks away, and turn right back around to go back out? I can respect that, you’ve got good reason. Even if I don’t like you taking so many risks, I understand why you do it. Problem is, there’s always the chance you won’t come back.” After I tossed my shirt to the side, she moved up close and we stepped into a hug. She rested her chin on my shoulder, even though she’s actually a bit taller than me.
I was silent for just a moment, then gave her a powerful, silent hug. “Ayva, thank you for understanding.”
She returned the strong hug, with one of her own, then let me go and stepped back two steps. “What? You still have pants on?” She reached into her pocket and casually pulled out a switchblade, extended the blade with a senseless flourish that clearly indicated she was playing around, and started cleaning the undersides of her fingernails with the blade. “If you need help with those pants, let me know.”
I hurried to get the pants off, without help, and then we both slowed down as much as forty-five minutes would let us.
By the time Animal returned, we were both showered and dressed. We then talked contingencies, radio signals, code words, etc., while I scarfed down some of the best bad Chinese food I’d ever had.
Shortly after that, I was putting on my newest version of armor. It was similar to the first set, but with a couple new tricks and a bit more efficient. The helmet was still a teardrop shape like a biker’s helmet, and still covered my whole face, but rather than random short lengths of carbon nanotubes for cooling, there was a pattern for optimal high speed air flow across the tubes.
Starting right at the center of the helmet, right in front of where my eyes would be if you could see them, there was a short spike of carbon fiber tubes. From that central spike, about twenty ridges radiated away like sunbeams from a cartoon sun, all as parallel as they could be from one another as they ran from the front of my helmet to the back. Between each pair of ridges, there was a little valley. From valley bottom to ridge top was maybe a quarter inch at the front of the face, to a half an inch at the sides of the head, then they got smaller again. The scalloped pattern gave us a lot more cooling surface area, and less drag then random tubes. Frank’s idea of course. A good idea. Frank’s hundreds of “eyes” were not easily visible but they were bigger than the individual microscopic nanofiber tubes, so if you looked hard in good light you could spot them – if you knew to look for them.
The arm and leg armor pieces, just as before, were individual pieces for upper and lower limbs with top and bottom plates. Four pieces per limb. Each piece of the forearms was a bit flatter than the first set. This allowed them to be slightly offset from each other at will, fanning slightly side to side, thumb to pinkie finger, to expose a thin ribbon of tungsten alloy blade, anchored to the armor. When the forearm armor was fanned about an inch, the armor made the forearm into a double bladed sword, without losing any protective ability. When retracted, the arm armor blades were concealed and would not cut anything. The shin armor worked in much the same way, a little extended forward and back, allowing me to expose blades to the front and back of my legs as well.
Frank had a severe dislike for nets, and we’d been netted before. He put up with the tungsten blades because potential immobility freaked him out a whole lot more than a little bit of extra weight from the blades. The upper arms and upper legs were clamshell construction as well, but exclusively devoted to protection and cooling. Each major joint had a little overlap of nanofiber fabric between plates. The cooling tubes on the arm and leg armor was a checkerboard pattern of short pyramids, a very different pattern than the helmet, since there wasn’t a predictable air pattern to expect for them to be exposed to.
The hand and foot armor were still heavy fiber cloth with gripping ridges on the bottoms, and scales of carbon fiber plate over fabric on their tops. Flexible for climbing, grabbing, and fighting, with more protection on the non-gripping sides. No consideration for cooling the hands or feet.
The torso was heavy fiber cloth everywhere, with heavy scales attached to the cloth on the upper chest and back and shoulders, and smaller scales elsewhere, except a large plate over the stomach. The largest plates had some cooling tubes on them, centered on each plate, but the smaller plates did not.
The blood cooler formed a fiber cloth gorget with large scales at the back of the neck and small ones to the front. As before, the connecting tubes ran down inside the torso armor, inside the gorget, not exposed. The blood cooler itself was exposed where it extended out from under the gorget, but it was armored. It had been a tongue-like apparatus that extended, exposing more surface area as blood pressure went up, but it was now an armored cylinder with high volume cooling fans at either side. It allowed us to operate indefinitely at highest speed, provided that it was not too much warmer than freezing outside.
Everything except the blades was made of a combination of graphene plates, carbon nanotubes, and synthetic spider silk. Everything was black, except the exposed blades, though the blackness varied. Under the arms near the armpits and on the upper inner legs it was noticeably lighter in daylight. Anywhere that there were cooling tubes, the armor was flat black, with almost zero reflectivity.
All the armor was still held in place the same way as before. Anywhere there were bones under the armor, the armor had dozens of carbon fiber straps. When we wore the armor, Frank would open gaps for the straps in our skin, through our muscles, and attach them to the bones for direct heat transfer as well as to anchor the armor, then seal the skin with the straps connected to the bone. The muscles themselves, especially the large long muscles, would be split into multiple strands to allow straps to pass through where the muscles were, without preventing the muscles from contracting or expanding properly. I never could quite get used to the sensation of putting the armor on. As a courtesy, Frank usually didn’t let me feel the process any longer.
“Only thing you need to fear in that armor is the Bug Bgone man, I think, Magilla,” said Animal as I fitted the blood cooler. Frank pulled the tubes into my body and attached them to my blood vessel network. Frank definitely didn’t let me feel that. Eight tubes as big as my thumb being dragged through my chest cavity by peristaltic muscle activity, and attaching to four major veins and four major arteries.
Under all the armor, under the skin even, was our last ditch defense, subcutaneous synthetic spider silk armor.
“It feels good to be in armor again, Frank.”
“Indeed it does.”
“And now that you’re all safe in that armor, you’re going to go out and see if you can pick a fight with an unknown number of enemies with unknown capabilities,” Dart commented.
“Right!” Then I got serious because Dart was giving me the ‘sleep on the couch’ look. “You know by now it’s just a guy thing Dart. I have the butterflies that will keep me on my toes, and Frank’s a pretty paranoid sort himself. We’ll be fine.”
“Yes.” She said. “I know.” Her expression said otherwise. She was a soldier, she knew death could come calling at any time, but she hated that I put myself into such extreme danger – even though she knew that what would be extreme danger for her or the others would typically be an inconvenience at best for me. If I was in extreme danger, any of the rest of us would be dead twice over.
Due to the cooling tubes on the armor, there was no convenient place on my body where I could safely strap a holster. The cooling tubes were a lot worse than shark skin for cutting anything that touched it. Pretty much every time I went out, I wasted a rawhide leather trench coat. Especially if there was a fight.
I checked the staff carefully, especially the loops and cradle. Frank had come up with an excellent idea that we modified the staff for. The staff was now a staff sling with a compartment for a dozen or so ball bearings to use for ammo. Frank was deadly accurate with the staff sling, able to hit a man-sized running target at three hundred yards, with about the same force as a hunting rifle. He was less accurate if we had to use rocks, but if we put a rock the size of our fist in the sling, it was a devastating attack, able to shear pine trees as big as our leg in diameter with a single blow. It took a huge effort to sling anything that massive that fast though, and we’d never seen the need to do it in a fight.
The last piece of gear was the street legal dirt bike with a rifle holster for the staff. While wearing a trench coat over it, the armor resembled some top end bike protective clothing unless you looked very closely. Such extensive protective gear was rarely worn by street bike riders, and almost never seen on dirt bike riders, but I liked the versatility of a dirt bike and I certainly wasn’t going without armor. You could go practically anywhere with one if you could drive one well, and we certainly could.
By the time I was geared and ready to go, it was after six PM and getting dark. I needed to move quickly to get to a good vantage point in the early darkness, so I could be in place and motionless as the homeless settled down to sleep.
“Am I missing anything Frank?”
“Yes. Turn around.”
I turned around and got a last hug from Dart, carefully returning the hug, the trench coat protecting her clothing and skin from my armor as we embraced.
I started the bike and headed towards the bridge where I had been living for the last couple weeks. There were several good hiding places I had scoped out, including hiding places for the bike.
“Woods or buildings,Frank?”
“Woods I think. More shadows there. We don’t smell so bad that we have to hide near dumpsters anymore.”
“Good point.” It was funny and sad that we had considered most of our preplanned hiding places based on whether or not there were dumpsters nearby. There were opportunities for the homeless to get clean every now and then, sometimes quite regularly, but in the role I had been playing? Not so much. I had been pretty rank.
It didn’t take us long to get to the place where we had to leave the bike and go the rest of the way on foot. An abandoned garage was the target parking spot. We coasted the last couple hundred yards with the lights and motor off, quietly pulling into a little area between the building and a dumpster.
The dumpster had a few old pallets leaning against it, which I quietly moved next to the bike. The pallets would break up the outline of the bike from casual view. Then we snuck out the back of the garage and followed the tree line along the railroad tracks towards the bridge. Luck was with me, the wind was blowing towards me from the bridge. If a drone showed up after the homeless were asleep, I would be able to smell them. Based on what Frank picked up about how the homeless kidnappers seemed to work, they didn’t kill where they kidnapped, so the others would be fine. I hoped.
I found an oak with a strong, solid limb about twenty feet off the ground, with an almost unobstructed view under the bridge, but enough branches and leaves around me to completely break up my image, then Frank and I settled in to wait.
Based on shared knowledge of all three local units, the tree line along the railroad tracks leading to the bridge would be the best cover to approach the slumbering humans in search of the target unit. Approach to this cover without extreme exposure was only possible from one of three buildings, all next to one another. The unit best equipped for stealth and detection moved first, the other two moving forward one at a time, and only when signaled. Then the scout unit would move forward again. After passing the first building there was a scent of burning hydrocarbons. Cautiously, the scout identified the approximate source of the scent. It would need to be investigated. It was along their primary approach and retreat path, and unexpected. The other two units agreed.
The three units moved closer to the source of the burning hydrocarbon scent and the scout suddenly indicated full alert, complete immobility. After a few careful shallow breaths, the scout shared the scent it had detected. All agreed it was a match to the target unit. Some humans that this human associated with were known to imbibe hydrocarbons. Perhaps the human was at the source of the burning hydrocarbons? It was agreed to investigate thoroughly. It didn’t take long to discover the two wheeled motorized vehicle, which was heavy with the scent of the target.
The scout did not consult with the others this time, it simply reached out and sliced both tires with a black-bladed sheath knife. The other two did not comment, they were watching their surroundings too closely to bother with unnecessary communication. The scout took a few careful deep breaths testing the air for scent, and changed its vision mode slightly to allow better analysis of the condition of ground and near-ground foliage, then it began to track the target. The trail led into the very same woods that they themselves had planned to use to approach the bridge.
The scout unit considered. It was unable to make the decision alone. After they reached good cover in the woods, all three units gathered closely, and networked together, sharing everything they had all experienced in the last thirty minutes. The motorized vehicle was an anomaly. The much healthier scent of the target unit was an anomaly. The fact that the target unit entered the woods ahead of them rather than simply taking its vehicle to the bridge where it lived was an anomaly. Their orders allowed for retreat in the face of defeat, but were not clear in regards to what degree of anomalous data could be encountered before pre-emptive retreat was allowable.
One unit brought up the possibility that the target unit might be actively seeking them. It is possible, but the target unit was singular. Against the three units that were present, any singular unit should not be difficult to disable and capture.
All agreed to move forward with highest possible caution, to see if they could locate the target unit. Each of them drew their main firearm from over their shoulder, and the team began to quietly stalk forward, the scout taking point. The wind was blowing from the bridge towards the team. If the target unit was between them and the bridge, the scout would smell it before seeing it, if it was well hidden.
The scout eventually detected fresh scent from the target, then took five very careful minutes to isolate the source location. The target unit was well concealed, in a large tree, a significant distance off the ground, with sufficient foliage around it to break up its outline. It was highly likely that the target unit was waiting in ambush, its position was an excellent position to observe the bridge where it normally slept.
The target unit didn’t appear to see the scout, so the scout very slowly and carefully backed away, and rejoined the others. The three units then quickly developed a plan and implemented it.